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Artem Chekh: Точка нуль (Absolute Zero)

This is not a novel but an account of Chekh’s time in the Ukrainian army during theWar in Donbass when separatists, aided by the Russians, tried to take over parts of Eastern Ukraine. However, Chekh is a novelist and writes this like a novel so here it is.

At the time, Chekh is married, with a son, and, of course, he has to abandon the comforts of Kyiv to fight for his country. His arrival as, presumably for most people first joining the army, is not pleasant. His fellow soldiers look like inmates, he says. The lieutenant insults them. For the first time I thought I was living someone else’s life, he comments.

The early training seems to consist mainly of running as though, he cynically comments, all we’ll be doing is running away from death . He does make friends but the first person he makes friend with is soon sent off to a real battalion. However, he does grow accustomed to the others. Who would’ve known that in three weeks I would manage to love them? To love them and to accept them. In the way in which people love and accept their own children, with all their shortcomings and transgressions. They are now almost family.

But then he, too, is separated from them and sent off to the Ninth Battalion in Haisyn. Initially, he finds it difficult to fit in. Silence and personal space are important to him and they are in short supply. He tries to go to bed early and get up early, before the others. Gradually, he becomes closer to his fellow soldiers.

What do they talk about when not fighting? War is not interesting. No desire to talk about it. If I kick the bucket, then I do. Later he comments God and politics. These I have observed have the least influence in the army. Especially during the war. So they talk about sex.

He has to serve fourteen months. People come and people go. He make friends and then they leave. He and his comrades become very cynical. No-one thinks they will ever win back the Donbass area for Ukraine. He comments the objective of the conflict is not the objective of the conflict . They tend to learn what is happening and what the generals intend to do not from their officers but from news bulletins. Corruption is rife. However, most of the soldiers want stability and do not want to rock the boat, so they say nothing. It is suggested that, with his education he could become an officer but he is very much against the idea as he does not want the responsibility. I’m just a coward who is afraid of responsibility.

Life is generally boring and tiring, particularly doing guard duty when the temperature falls below freezing. They do have modern technology so can phone home (frightening their families with horror stories) and watch films on tablets. They get visits from the locals, with volunteers bringing them foods and other gifts and prostitutes also visiting. He even manages to get away for a few days when his wife, also a writer, is doing a book tour and will go to Northern Donetsk, some fifty kilometres from where he is serving and he manages to visit her.

One of the interesting things about this novel is though he is there to fight for his country and Ukraine is at war with the separatists and the Russians, we see hardly any warfare. Yes, Chekh and his fellow soldiers are continually afraid of snipers, we do see dead bodies (but not the moment of their death), there are mines in the nearby woods, they have to do guard duty on many occasions, they move their lines forward and Chekh and his fellow soldiers keep their weapons permanently loaded, in case of sudden attack but we never see him fire a weapon in anger nor do we see the enemy fire at them. Doubtless, shooting took place on both sides but he does not recount it.

Most war novels – think of Le Feu (Under Fire), for example – focus on the fear the soldiers have when either under attack or going into attack. Neither of these two occur in this novel, though they are afraid of sniper fire and of being killed in their bunks. The focus is much more on how the soldiers react to the daily life of being a soldier with the possibility of attack being only one of their concerns. It could have been dull but never is as Chekh keeps the story varied with something new continually happening.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Vivat
First published in English 2020 by Glagoslav
Translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna